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Against the Grain

Another one bites the dust: The Sears building before its character was destroyed.

Denver and its suburbs are in a building boom that has been dubbed "supergrowth," and the negative effect in terms of lost historic buildings is reaching a critical mass. It's undeniable: Denver's established character is being erased.

From an aesthetic standpoint, the problem is twofold.

First, the vast majority of the new buildings aren't very good architecturally; most are examples of a kind of degraded historical revivalism in which formless structures are covered in synthetic stucco and meaningless ornaments -- an ersatz style that has been laughingly named "new urbanism."

Second, despite the big opportunities presented by the mostly empty Platte Valley and former Lowry Air Force Base and the big pitfalls that need to be avoided in already built-out neighborhoods like Hilltop and Montclair, urban design decisions made by local politicians, especially those related to historic preservation and the design review for new buildings, have been uninspired at best -- disastrous at worst.

There are many villains here. The mediocre designers cranking out tripe. The greedy developers who want the most for the least and who exploit open land or existing neighborhoods for profit. But sloth and avarice are old sins, and the real fault, at least in central Denver, lies with Mayor Wellington Webb and his administration's planning department.

Here's the situation. Monied interests -- developers, contractors and investors -- need to get permission from the city in order to build anything. Many also need to request zoning changes. Some even want public subsidies. The city reviews these proposals, but nothing can be done without its permission. That means that the Webb administration can help determine what the city looks like -- in the same way that the administration of former mayor Federico Peña did.

Ever wonder why lower downtown wasn't cleared for parking lots and is instead one of the city's choicest neighborhoods? Coors Field was Peña's idea. At the time, the neighborhood was run-down, and its mostly vacant buildings were prime candidates for demolition if a stadium was built. So Peña used his political power to push for the creation of the Lower Downtown Historic District, which put strict preservation controls in place. Only then did he propose the idea of Coors Field. Is there anyone who could deny the success?

Compare this to Webb's handling of east Denver, for example. Spiraling real estate values have put pressure on the largest and most important properties in Hilltop, Crestmoor and Montclair, many of them architecturally significant homes with fine old trees and shrubs. But these buildings are being demolished at an alarming rate and their grounds cleared of their mature landscaping. So where there once was a historic house, there are now two, three, or even six Highlands Ranch-style monstrosities.

Consider the sad fate of the 1921 Spanish colonial Burns Mansion that stood at the corner of Eighth Avenue and Monaco Parkway before it was demolished last year. Three ugly neo-traditional houses have replaced the elegant mansion and its grounds, and three more are planned for the near future.

There is a glimmer of hope in the city council's recent emergency moratorium on lot-splitting in Hilltop -- sponsored by Councilwoman Polly Flobeck -- but Montclair and Crestmoor are still swinging in the breeze. And the moratorium doesn't address other urgent issues such as historic preservation, landscape preservation and design review.

It's ironic that speculative builders are able to trade on the charm of these established neighborhoods while chipping away at them and destroying the things that made them desirable in the first place. Thus the loss is not subjective, but represents a genuine decline in the objective urban values of historic architecture and established landscape design.


A variation on this theme is also apparent in Cherry Creek North. Although there is little of genuine architectural value in the residential section (despite the heart-wrenching stories of elderly couples being forced to sell their half-million-dollar two-bedroom ranchers), it's a different story in the shopping section, which sports an ever-dwindling stock of first-rate commercial buildings.

One of the best -- until it was destroyed by the insensitive and thorough remodeling now under way -- was the Sears department store, at 2375 First Avenue. Built in the 1950s to a design by Denver architect Temple Buell, it featured fine masonry work in brick and stone-like aggregate trimmed in smart-looking aluminum. The building's volumes were assembled in a pleasing cubist cluster, and cantilevered aluminum overhangs helped set the futuristic tone.

And those wonderful green neon signs!

All of that will be lost. The building is being stripped to its structural members and will be reconfigured and resurfaced into oblivion. When they're done, we'll have another bland and unremarkable shopping center at the expense of a noteworthy landmark that only needed a good cleaning.

 

It's a failure of the city's political leadership that the possibility of using the existing Sears building and constructing additions compatible with its mid-century modern style were never even considered. That would have taken vision, and there is a lot more money floating around town than foresight.

Probably the most discouraging aspect of what happened at Sears was the longstanding involvement of Denver City Councilman Ed Thomas. For his part, Thomas has been a one-man demolition squad. Aside from Sears, he has played a key role in the destruction of a couple of other notable works of Denver architecture.

His actions in 1995 regarding I.M. Pei's Zeckendorf Plaza, which was hacked up with public money in its conversion to the Adam's Mark Hotel, were reprehensible. At the time, Thomas posed as an ally of the preservationists and actually offered strategic advice to Historic Denver. The jig was up, though, when, almost immediately afterward, he voted in favor of sending the famous hyperbolic paraboloid to the scrap heap. (Thomas pulled a similar stunt last week, pretending to support the Hilltop moratorium, then voting against it.)

In 1997 he shilled for Bruce Berger, the New York developer who wanted to buy the old Denver Post building so he could tear it down. Berger's intended use for the land -- then inconveniently located underneath the Post building -- was as a site for a not-yet-planned-or-financed convention-center hotel. Thomas rudely attacked Historic Denver's representatives at a council meeting for having the temerity to point out that the 1940s moderne-style building, designed, again, by Temple Buell, might perhaps be saved -- at least until there were solid plans for a replacement.

After getting his way, Berger noted that he'd also like to ask the Denver Urban Renewal Authority for $55 million in public money to help build the hotel. After all, no downtown developer should be expected to pay for his own building.

Berger got the hotshot Denver architectural firm of Klipp Colussy Jenks DuBois to do some impressive drawings of the would-be hotel. But so far, those drawing are all he has. There is still no deal in place to build the hotel despite on-again, off-again negotiations. As the preservationists said three years ago when they lost the fight to save the Post building, the only thing Berger guaranteed was another surface parking lot. And that's what we got.

But it's not all bad: The Klipp firm did get to design that fence around it.


Interestingly, Berger's teetering deal spells trouble for the soon-to-be-expanded Colorado Convention Center, another project that will jeopardize one of Denver's landmarks.

By ordinance, voter-approved bonds that would be sold to pay for the convention center can't be issued until a hotel deal is in place. If an agreement is reached, however, the CCC expansion will mean that the marvelous 1969 Currigan Exhibition Hall, built by architect James Ream and engineer Michael Barrett, will follow in the footsteps of the Burns Mansion, the Sears building, Zeckendorf Plaza and the old Post building.

There's a lot of nonsense out there that someone will come forward and move the building (the city has offered it for free), but it's surely a cynical gesture. Supported by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and endorsed by Bill Moser, the former head of the Downtown Denver Partnership, the idea had only one objective consequence: to short-circuit any grassroots effort that might have been made to save the building. Because instead of rallying to save it, many preservationists breathed a sigh of relief when this proposal was made, even though there is no guarantee from the city, and -- more important -- no money to pay for the Herculean effort required.

Apparently these preservationists, along with other supporters of the preposterous idea, forgot that this was an old chestnut that has been used before. In 1990, some suggested that Burnham Hoyt's fantastic 1940 Boettcher School (and, later, Pei's hyperbolic paraboloid) could be moved. The notion was so unfeasible, however, that the preservationists laughed it off -- and they should have done the same thing this time. (The Boettcher School was demolished by Children's Hospital for a parking lot, but the hospital is now negotiating to move to Fitzsimons.)

Which brings us back to the Webb administration. There's no reason that Currigan couldn't be incorporated into the expanded CCC, except that the powers that be don't want to do it. So like everything else (except more so, because the expansion of the convention center is a publicly funded project), the failure to save Currigan lies at the feet of the mayor. Webb lacks the vision, as do his close advisors, to insist on saving it.

Webb's disinterest in architecture, either historic or contemporary, is what made his news conference on January 13 unintentionally hilarious. At that press briefing, David Owen Tryba was announced as the chosen architect for the new municipal building that will be connected to the existing Annex I on the Civic Center. Webb stood tall, and with all due seriousness, took credit for saving Annex I, an international-style masterpiece from the 1940s by the vanguard architectural firm of Smith, Hegner and Moore. What made it so funny was that the Webb administration is the only entity on earth that could possibly threaten Annex I with demolition since the city owns it -- and has for decades.

 

Another city project coming on line is the new freestanding wing to be built for the Denver Art Museum. Webb's role here is unclear, but so far he's rolled back the amount the DAM originally requested for capital improvements by several million dollars, and he's appointed his wife, Wilma Webb, to serve on the City Selection Committee to choose an architect. Need I say more?

Then there's Denver Health, also under the Webb administration. A proposed new wing there will simultaneously annihilate the character of the main entrance of the handsome 1960s Eugene Sternberg building and cause the demolition of the charming 1950s building by Victor Hornbein, an acknowledged master of the city's modern architecture.

Once again, the problem is the vision thing: Webb doesn't have one.


If all of this isn't enough to make you run screaming out the door, how about some more bad news, this time from the private sector. Broe Companies, which owns Country Club Gardens (the sensational moderne-style housing complex on South Downing Street that was built in 1940 by the distinguished firm of Fisher and Fisher) wants to tear down parts of the gorgeous old thing and build high-rises, presumably with as little charm as Country Club Towers on nearby Bayaud Street, which Broe also owns.

Or take the former Bethesda campus in south Denver near Iliff and South Dahlia streets, a magnificent group of historic Harry Manning buildings and several compatible modern ones by Hornbein that have been linked to one another by a first-class landscape that includes a water feature. The would-be new owners, Denver Academy, though having no immediate demolition plans, have thoroughly gutted a Denver Landmark District nomination prepared by local neighborhood groups. In the worst kind of tokenism, a compromise was reached in which only the chapel and the gateway were put forward for preservation -- and nothing else but some vague guarantees. More than anyone else, Mike Henry, attorney and longtime citizen advocate, deserves the blame for this tremendous failure.

And the Lafayette Hughes Mansion, the oldest house in the Polo Grounds neighborhood, is set to be demolished by current owner Tom Shane, the diamond king. Shane is set to replace the irreplaceable masterpiece with a new residence. One can only imagine how tacky that will be. The existing mansion is as superb as it is little-known, since it can be accessed only by a private road. Shane's agents are already shopping the salvage -- like an integral pipe organ and a Tiffany glass floor. What a shame.

This is not to mention the redo set for the Shops at Tabor Center, by the Urban Design Group, wherein the 1980s postmodern structure is to be -- believe it or not -- postmodernized. Don't get me started about that. Anthony Belluschi Architects, the designer of the pedestrian changes set for the Tabor Center, are already known around here for Park Meadows. So that's what the "new urbanism" is -- the banality of the suburbs right downtown.

You get the picture. Turn around and you're not going to recognize Denver -- because it's already beginning to look the same as anyplace else.


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